What is wrong with ACTA?

2012-06-17

I gave a speech at the London demonstration against ACTA last weekend. Unfortunately, it was caught on film (around 21:10) and I've transcribed it below. It's worrying to see that I talk in well-formed paragraphs, which must be awfully tiring to listen to and unpack. What I was trying to say was that the IP lobbyists were boiling the frog by repeatedly making small additions to each dimension of IP protection, changing the law slowly enough to avoid a major backlash, and so we needed to make politicians care about the issues more. Anyway, verbatim:

We've had international treaties as the mechanism for increasing intellectual property protection for 30 years now.

Intellectual property protection can be increased by making new things be protected by intellectual property, by increasing how long the rights last, by changing the enforcement procedures -- the criminal sanctions or the courts, in how they do their job in enforcing these rights.

They can be changed by the types of actions that are no longer allowed without the permission of the rightsholders.

And what ACTA is, is another small step to increase the types of protection that are available to the people who hold the intellectual property rights in the first place.

It's not a big step; it's not going to end the world; it's going to take us a little bit closer towards a very unpleasant situation.

This has been going on for a very long time and the reason it's been going on is of course that it subserves the interests of the people who hold the copyright and patents in a large number of products.

And what they've discovered is that they could get their policies through democratically by going to parliaments and asking for legislation, they could even have the national constitution amended to say there should be copyright protection at this level or whatever, or they could have an international treaty.

And there are two reasons why they prefer conferring in secret and having unelected bureaucrats and civil servants rather than accountable politicians negotiating these things.

One is international treaties are harder to amend than national constitutions or than legislation.

That is why there are so many European directives and international treaties about this.

It's cause it's more expensive to organise to change these things when they've been done, and what ACTA will do is take everyone in the developed world up to a very high level of protection and then they'll force the developing world also to raise their standards in return for access to agricultural markets or some other bauble.

So that's why they're using international treaties: there's less scrutiny; there's no ability to horsetrade when it comes back to national parliaments (and we're very lucky that the -- and I wouldn't normally say this about any EU institution -- but we're very lucky the EU is actually having a serious number of votes on this matter).

We've spoken to all the different political parties in the UK including Sinn Fein, the BNP, DUP, the Scottish Nationalists and a lot of them -- the Lib Dems have now come on side; they didn't seem to be a few weeks ago -- all of them except Labour and the Tories are now in a situation where they're saying "we will oppose ACTA and we will turn up and actually vote against it." and maybe labour and the Tories will do so as well.

The Greens and the UKIP have been saying the right things. This is good news.

So there is some hope.

But what we have to do is consider what the longer term picture is.

We are always going to face demands from the rightsholders for greater protection.

Some of these are even legitimate, but most of it is done without any democratic mandate whatsoever, without a vote.

These people cannot even bear to face the arguments about is this efficient? is it just? whom does it help? what is the cost benefit analysis of doing things this way?

They are just not interested in empirical research or evidence or argument or justification.

All they do is go and say "I have a right to have things this way! Only a tyrant would deny me this! You're taking my stuff! It's outrageous!"

There's not much more to their argument than that -- and there is an argument to be made for their position -- but they're not making it!

And the reason they're not making it is that they don't have to make it, because the politicians don't ask them to say "why do you want this heaving slice of monopoly rent added to your bottom line?"

They just accept the argument that "well, these people look respectable; they're doing something useful for our economy; if we give them this, well, it probably isn't going to be so bad and there are no votes in it."

We need to make it so that there are votes in it.

We need to make these people afraid of what will happen if they constantly ignore what the people want.

The wrong way to redistribute wealth to the rich is by an international treaty. If you want to do that, vote Conservative, don't go and have something done by an international treaty in secret.

It might be a legitimate policy for all I know, but that doesn't matter: we haven't been asked!

We have a right to a say on the rules we are expected to obey, whether that's about the Internet or whether it's about what sideof the street we drive on.

This is matter of democracy, and without democracy we will keep getting exploited, and have a small amount of everyone's income transferred to people who are better at lobbying than we are, and that is a ridiculous way to run the Internet, ladies and gentlemen, and we should oppose it forever.

Does it mean anything to favour European integration only in the abstract?

2012-06-24

Can someone who purports to favour a position really be said to favour of it when he can concretely identify no circumstances in which his policy is beneficial?

I think saying "I'm in favour of X in concept" or "in principle" is basically just a pose.

People who adopt this position in relation to European integration (e.g., saying "the general concept is a good one") therefore do not need to argue that the actual existing EU is a good thing, which they admit it is not, nor must they evaluate any concrete hypothetical form the EU might take. Indeed it is possible to proclaim oneself in favour of the EU in the abstract, but unable to identify a single, concrete form the EU might take which might be acceptable to anyone.

Argument by analogy is never conclusive, but it's certainly illustrative, and the analogies aren't very favourable ...

Saying "I favour X in principle" is analogous to saying "I'm not a racist, I just don't like individual black people.", Neil Harding's titanium-skulled commitment to ID cards "in principle", or "Communism was great in theory, but we never got actual existing communism anywhere.", which is particularly offensive (communism is even worse in theory than it is in practice, and we got enough examples of actual existing to communism to put all but the most hardened genocidal maniacs off the whole business for millennia).

Consider the mathematical analogues of "in favour in the abstract but not in the concrete": someone could say "I am happy to pay a higher train fare on any day of the month, except even-numbered dates and odd-numbered dates". Now it can be proven that all positive integers are either odd or even, and thus the set of days in which the supporter, in theory, of higher fares would be prepared so to act is the empty set. One may go further and define one's position in terms of an obvious contradiction: "I am prepared to pay more on any day whose number is one greater than itself", which yields the empty set for a different reason. Of course, you can't away with being so obvious, but might define your position in terms of an unproven conjecture, "I shall pay more when the number of seconds elapsed since 1970 is an even number inexpressible as the sum of two primes".

This post is reasonably heavily edited from the original

Scaling across data types

2012-06-25

Whereas much work has gone into scaling storage and processing as the size of datasets increases, we dont have a clear vision of how to manage a group of vastly diverse datasets, all saying similar things in slightly different ways at different levels of quality and completeness.

The Open Knowledge Foundation has two projects, CKAN and OpenSpending which deal in part with these issues, plus the additional problem of soliciting dataset contributions from the general public. They succeed by shoehorning certain common aspects of the datasets into a standard schema and accepting and supporting broad general variation elsewhere on best effort basis.

To represent tabular data of a consistent single schema, one may use a conventional relational database table. For multiple schemas, one may specify a namespace policy then use multiple tables. This leaves open the question how to handle very similar datasets: e.g., datasets whose schemas differ by a single member. SQL-style relational databases permit the use of NULL values where information is missing, but this has severe drawbacks, and is unhelpful where the schemas differ markedly. One ideally wants arbitrary unions of dissimilar tables.

This is to say, sometimes we want to say each item in this dataset is "either an X or a Y; this is effectively the dual of algebraic data types and indeed of the abstract base class. In the case of big data -scale datasets, applications tend to be beyond the point where Object Relational Mapping systems are feasible, but otherwise, it is very useful to know that information unmarshalled from the data stream does not need to be completely checked at run-time before instantiation with appropriate subtype.

Within or across organisational boundaries, reconciliation and verification processes ought to be isolatable from each other, even at the cost of performance. Suppose we are verifying the contents of a particular cadastral claim, e.g., a title deed in the United States: we will have names and addresses, which must be resolved to counties, states and so on. It should be unnecessary for automated tools retrieving and caching the supporting data to have to reside within the same domain of administrative control. Technologically and economically, however, we are a long way from distributable data reconciliation.